You have to admire Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pluck. The vision of a downtown to O’Hare express rail link has been a mirage for decades. His predecessor, Richard M. Daley, pushed the idea as far back as 2001, and revived it after riding a 267-mph bullet train in Shanghai in 2010 . The outcome? Zip. Daley’s downtown terminus for the project, a CTA superstation at Block 37, remains abandoned.
The current mayor is mounting his own push for downtown-to-O’Hare express rail, and chose Daley’s mothballed station to announce the initiative. “More than a century ago, Daniel Burnham encouraged Chicago to ‘make no little plans’ and today Chicagoans continue to make big and bold plans with an eye toward the future,” Emanuel told reporters.
We too like big, bold plans. But from the time Emanuel first dangled this notion in February, we’ve been skeptical. Why is this needed, especially if the CTA is planning upgrades along the existing Blue Line to O’Hare? How much faster would it move passengers? Would there be demand for a comparatively high-fare ride? What route would it take, and for how long would construction disrupt neighborhoods?
And, of course, how much would it cost, and how much would be shouldered by taxpayers?
The mayor’s doubling down, so we’ll play along. He envisions a line that would take riders from downtown to O’Hare in 20 minutes or less. Trains would run at least every 15 minutes for much of the day. Fares would cost less than a taxi or Uber ride. Chicago’s aviation chief, Ginger Evans, told the Sun-Times she believed business travelers would be willing to pay fares of $25 to $35, a price that would include baggage check at a downtown station, a seat reservation, on-board Wi-Fi and drinks.
The city envisions three potential routes: either above or below the existing Blue Line; along a freight rail right-of-way that begins at Clinton and Congress and runs through western suburbs before reaching O’Hare; and Metra’s North Central commuter line that goes from Union Station to just east of O’Hare before continuing on to Antioch. Possibilities for the downtown station include the shuttered Block 37 station, Union Station, and sites at Clinton/Congress and Canal/Clinton.
The mayor has addressed one of our biggest concerns — putting this on the backs of taxpayers. He says not a penny of taxpayer money will be spent on design, construction or operation. We’ll hold him to that. City projects touted as private-sector-paid endeavors often find a way to slip a hand into taxpayers’ pockets. We remember Daley’s pledge to Chicagoans in 2001 that they wouldn’t pay a dime for the ugly rebuild of Soldier Field. A decade later, taxpayers learned they would have to make up for a shortfall created when hotel tax revenue earmarked for the project proved insufficient. Emanuel huffed, “I don’t want the taxpayers of the city of Chicago to be treated as if they’re just an ATM machine.” Words to remember, Mayor.
Emanuel has issued a “Request for Qualifications” seeking enterprises that could design, build and operate the rail link. One billionaire innovator, Elon Musk, on Thursday tweeted that he’s all in. One of his companies, SpaceX, launched the first orbital rocket to safely land back on Earth, and has sent several cargo missions to the International Space Station. His electric vehicle startup, Tesla, tops Ford and GM in market capitalization. The vision for a downtown-to-O’Hare link that Musk touted earlier this year is just as ambitious. His idea is to bore a tunnel to carry minibus-like vehicles on electric-powered sleds, which would zip at speeds of 125 mph. A subterranean superhighway.
In the meantime, the CTA is moving forward with the five-year Blue Line revamp to upgrade stations and rebuild aging stretches that delay trains. A downtown-to-O’Hare trip that now takes as long as 45 minutes would take about 38 minutes with the revamp and still cost just $5. You won’t be able to get a Rob Roy on the Blue Line, though. You’ll still have your bags with you. And maybe you’ll be standing in a crowd.
Emanuel’s plan for classier service might be a good alternative, if: If the right route emerges. If the right builder/operator comes along. If the service proves popular enough to be self-sustaining. And if taxpayers aren’t the project’s ATM machine.
Mr. Mayor, may your vision be more than the last guy’s mirage.